Saturday, August 22, 2015

Final evaluation of progress during this course

This course aimed to give me a basis in the fundamental principles of film-making that will allow the production of top quality work with the technology available to me.

The key learning outcomes are that I should now able to:

  • demonstrate an ability to use creative visual techniques to achieve an intended meaning, atmosphere and mood in a moving image sequence
  • demonstrate a basic understanding of how audio can enhance visual content
  • demonstrate an understanding of the basics of narrative development, rhythm and pace
  • reflect perceptively on my learning experience and demonstrate the ability to continue this approach to learning independently

I have definitely learned a massive amount on this subject, which was completely new to me, since beginning the course.

  1. My critical approach to the medium of film has developed significantly and I feel much more confident about reviewing other people's work than I ever have before - this has been part of a wider education and increasingly sophisticated understanding of visual culture.  (Interestingly, I have had 2,676 views of my review of Red Road which was my first blog post for this course)
  2. I think I have succeeded in using a range of visual techniques to achieve meaning. In my final assignment I said that I hoped to capture the atmosphere of a home that feels empty and melancholy and the tutor report stated "this comes across well."
  3. Still many improvements to be made on the audio front but I have moved forward well and now have a good understanding now of various techniques and options available to me.  
  4. The learnings on narrative development, rhythm and pace have been fascinating and I am confident will have a good role in my photography in future - particularly in creating a coherent series of images.
  5. I certainly feel I am now equipped to continue to study and work in this area independently.

Peter Haveland has been an excellent tutor - very supportive and patient, whilst being honest and detailed in his critiques. I particularly like how he encourages broad research and lateral thinking to stimulate self-awareness and a deeper contextual understanding of student work.

My only real frustration with the course work is that it places a high emphasis on interacting with other film students and unfortunately these are few and far between at the OCA at the moment.

And my main regret is that I spent too much time watching feature-length films instead of shorts. Whilst longer movies are very instructive on all kinds of techniques and masterful creations, they can also be very intimidating and seem entirely out of my realistic scope. 

Viewing more award-winning short films would have been more helpful and it would be good if the OCA could consider adding links to some of the best to the course materials to encourage this from the outset.

Key observations as I move on to level two...

I need to take a much more holistic approach to my studies. I have tended to read books rather in isolation or within a very specific context/exercise and must now feel confident about broadening out my learning and responses.  Whilst I appreciate the courses follow a natural progression I must avoid a rigid linear process-driven approach.

I need to up my game on robustly referencing my sources and using the Harvard system - this has been very haphazard up until now.

I must be confident about being more creative and experimental in my approach, drawing as much as possible on contemporary practice and contextual/critical understanding.

Reflections on tutor report from Assignment Four

Generally acceptable feedback on this assignment from Peter.

Key criticisms:

  • Again: the soundtrack. Peter is definitely encouraging more creativity:  "there is no need to stick with the ambient sound or to think of it as sound effects" and talks about exploring compositions with repeating motifs
  • Questionable over whether the two panning shots fit with the rest of the visual pattern of the work?  I think it is borderline. I would have liked more tracking shots but did not have a dolly that would work in the available space.
  • Consider the transitions with care - would more straight cuts have worked better?
  • Bed shot too long - pacing is vital

Positive reinforcements:

  • Working from own experience and emotion without it becoming too self-indulgent
  • Deriving inspiration from the Larkin poem without trying to illustrate it
  • Visual inspiration from Bhimji's work - so glad I went on that study visit!

I think a key learning from the last two assignments is that it is worth experimenting with lots of different approaches in the edit and with the soundtrack. I tend to make a decision about how something will be done  and stick to it, not always trying alternatives. I suppose this has been something new to get my head around as film making involves so many more elements than just the individual shots. It all must come together to create the final sequence and there are many ways this can work.  

Essential then that I create more footage to allow for this flexibility. This sort of goes against how I have tried to become more precise and selective as a stills photographer but can certainly be achieved with mindfulness on film projects.

Time - how to convey expansion and contraction

In Visual Culture by Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros, the key debate in the film section is Does film just represent time or actually create it? 

"In classical film, time flows chronologically and is represented through progressions of shots that, in connecting time to sensory-motor references, represent it in a continuous fashion. Time ellipses and flashbacks add a degree of sophistication to to this representation of time, but they do not alter the essentially linear nature of movement-image progressions, designed to create spatio-temporal coherence." 

It then goes on to cite Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad as a good example of a non-linear structure "characterized by the intensive use of flashbacks and time shifts that are far from obvious and that create the time ambiguity..."

Howells, R & Negreiros, J (2012) Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press

There are, of course, dozens of great films which have a non-linear narrative.  Notable ones would be 21 Grams; Oldboy 2003; Pulp Fiction; Slumdog Millionaire; Kill Bill Vols 1&2; Mulholland Drive, Memento and Before the Devil Knows You'r Dead.  It is increasingly common as film professionals need to create even more impressive new work to attract audiences. Often these come in the form of 'puzzle' movies such as Donnie Darko.

One of the best films depicting the contraction of time is Synecdoche, New York (2008) - written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. This is a mind-blowing piece of work which needs to be watched several times and my attempts to explain it could not do it justice.  In one short scene, depicting a single incident which should cover a couple of days at most,  time actually progresses by six months, indicated by a radio, a newspaper, Christmas decorations and a calendar.

Another good example is the scene in Notting Hill (1999, dir Roger Michell) where the protagonist walks through the market. It is done in one take, the camera tracking Hugh Grant but he walks into Autumn rain, Winter snow, Spring and the hot overhead sun of Summer. Other visual clues include a pregnant shopper whom we see at the end with toddler and a character newly in love later seen breaking up with her boyfriend; even the produce on the market stalls changes to match the season.

Other techniques could include light moving across a room to denote the hours of the day. Pages being torn off calendar.  Hairstyles and cars are often used. In Shawshank Redemption we sense the passage of time by the changing posters on the wall of Andy's cell.

The expansion of time is more rare is this is unlikely to appeal so much to an audience. In basic terms this can simply be done through slow motion. The Matrix uses this technique to good effect.

Another technique is to shoot some action from a number of different viewpoints and repeat the playing of the incident. This can be a good narrative device if there is a complicated event occurring. A good example would be in Jackie Brown (1997, dir Quentin Tarantino) - the shopping bag exchange scene which we see three times.

Occasionally a film uses real time as a central part of the narrative - High Noon (1952, dir Fred Zinnemann) being one of the most famous examples of this.  We see a clock repeatedly to build up tremendous tension.

Graphics can be used - text on the screen; time-laps; the aging process; symbolism; montage; transitions such as jump cuts or fades and dissolves.  Colour techniques such as bleaching or filters. Split screens can also sometimes work in the case of multiple threads.

Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize, The Photographers’ Gallery

Deutsche Borse 2015 Photography Prize, The Photographers’ Gallery.

This annual prize rewards a living photographer for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format, within Europe, which has significantly contributed to photography.

Nikolai Bakharev (b. 1946, Russia) Relationship

Bakharev, a mechanic, took these pictures during the 1980s when any form of public nudity was illegal. He has captured some very private moments in public spaces and has created wonderful set of images.

The composition is quite centralised with the images cropped into sqares; all in black and white, some seemingly intimate family snapshots but of strangers.  I wondered how much they were posed – did he drape hands and ask for specific angles and groupings?  Almost all involve some form of physical touch and rhythm is created from the contours of the bodies.

Some seem uncomfortable and understandably so given the political climate.

Whilst I enjoyed the work and was fascinated by the context, this seemed the least strong within the competition.

Viviane Sassen (b. 1972, The Netherlands) Umbra

This was quite experimental. It is called Umbra (latin for shadow) and combines photos, installation art, sound and other media. According to the artist’s statement, she uses Umbra as “a metaphor for the human psyche and its manifestations.”  It is a mixture of realism and abstraction with bright colours as well as light and dark. Lots of strong contrasts and textures and dynamic movement to represent alter ego. This work left me cold although some fellow students felt that it forces engagement by pushing the boundaries.

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972, South Africa) Faces and Phases 2006

These incredible portraits are of the LGBTI community on post-apartheid South Africa. Some of her subjects have shared their personal stories of homophobia, transphobia and ‘curative rape’ often resulting in murder.  Muholi considers herself to be a “visual activist” and appeals for resistance to hate, oppression and brutality. 

The images have a striking uniformity in presentation – all images are the same size, sitter looking at the camera, often in ¾ pose) but the personality of the subject radiates as these people open up and confront their stigmas.   The different backdrops also add to the story and drama of the images.  This served to make them all seem united with common connections but fiercely different, strong and independent.

The film screen showed some colour images of quite explicit poses; gestures with blur; very grainy – beautiful.  I was not so taken with the white cloth sheet with writing over it – this just felt a bit too amateur for me, compared with the impact of the portraits

Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse (b.1981 South Africa & b. 1981 UK) Ponte City

This work focuses on a 54 storey high building Ponte City built in 1976 for white supremacists in Johannesburg. It has since become a massive squat for drug dealers, refugees, criminals and the poor.  The project documents the failed regeneration scheme in 2008 and combines portraits of the residents with archival and found material to convey the idea of a dreamland and dystopia. 

This part of the exhibition absolutely blew me away. I loved the meticulous dedication to this epic project but also the brave creativity. Snapshots found in abandoned rooms have figures cut out and displaced. Old images are combined with new portrayals of the rooms they were found in.  There are paint-splattered pictures; “after-images”; large lightboxes display hundreds of captures of doors, walls and lifts. One display is entirely of pictures of TVs.   The exhibit also includes letters of asylum applications and appeals; medical supplies and other historical documents to bring the inhabitants of this block to life. Very inspirational and for me a firm winner. 

Guy Bourdin, Image Maker at Somerset House

Born in 1928 in Paris, Guy Bourdin was a protege of Man Ray, working closely with Conde Nast for a large part of his career as well as shooting ad campaigns for a number of big fashion brands.

This show uses its title 'Image Maker' in several senses, reflecting how thoroughly staged the work is but also how influential it has been on other photographers. It is also presumably refers to Bourdin's success in positioning the Charles Jourdan shoe brand in the 70s.

Here we see pure advertising - albeit ground-breaking, iconic, ingenious.

There is footage from some of the shoots and Bourdin's journey with the legs recorded on a Super 8. It is very fast (speeded up?), unedited, choppy, showing lots of action. We see signs, brand symbols (car hoods), lots of legs, seaside, views through windows.  He has thoroughly explored the idea that something doesn't have to be 'attractive' to attract attention. 

I expected to find the deconstruction of his models into body parts to be abhorrent to my militant feminism but I found myself responding fairly neutrally. It seemed to me that the mannequin legs placed in mundane surrounds served well to draw my attention to the shoes. I do not conform to the female stereotype of having a shoe obsession but I still found the footwear to be the most attractive aspect of most of the Jourdan images, as intended. There is no distraction, there is no woman (to be judged by the male/female gaze).

I was struck by how many of them remained unpublished and wondered what had been the criteria for the rejection.

We see the legs and try to make sense of what we are seeing and have to reconstruct the story. This is a confident woman. She goes places, she has sexual partners, she makes people drop ice creams at the beach. Metal fences collapse in her wake. Planes take off all around her.

These are not soft, feminine landscapes. Bourdin roots her among strong lines, shapes and textures, high contrasts, borders and barriers to contain the landscape. The scenes are mundane, industrial, characterless.

This bland backdrop allows some tremendous subtlety with lighting and colour. In some cases just the smallest glint of light or matching colour picks up the shape or colour or the leather of the shoes. 

It is hard to imagine how this would have been received at the time but it certainly seems to have been ground breaking - not least as the ads were run across a double page spread rather than the usual single page at the time.

Bourdin used staged locations, lots of artificial light and mirrored reflections.  He seems to have favoured wide vistas, graphically framed by man-made barriers and structures to suggest containment.  He demonstrates an understanding of a place to inform how he positions his models within the context of his vision for the image.

Much of this exhibition feels full of movement and energy; a high-gloss obsession with beauty and form with strong blocks of rich colours. The women are often passive – critics have commented that the models often looked to be injured or dead.  Bourdin succeeded in extending the parameters of what fashion photography was all about and what it could convey.  He uses narrative and suspense and this visual storytelling continues to be popular today.  He borrows from surrealist artists such as Magritte and Luis Bunel to create images which disrupt the senses through a mixture of disturbance and delight.

This was a fascinating show as it contained a wealth of imagery that would not normally appeal to me. This gave me the opportunity to look at it objectively. I did feel his output seemed very French and I would love to be able to dissect this more. Bourdin succeeds in transforming the banal to the beautiful which surely is the dream of most advertising execs, whilst his imagery contains filmic ambiguity to engage the viewer.

Time - connection script

Scene set in a house with contemporary decor. 

Woman is listening the radio and dressing in smart clothes. The radio clearly indicates it is morning, as does the angle of the light.

A number of her belongings are laid out on the bed, being inspected by a cat.

She packs all of the belongings into a bag and zips it up.

She turns off the radio and places a coffee mug in the sink. 

She checks the back door is locked and takes a look around the flat.

She exits via the front door.

Fade to black briefly.

The camera remains in same position.

The door opens again and she reenters the flat dumping her bag on the floor and slipping off her jacket. She sighs and runs her hand through her hair looking tired and slightly frazzled.

The flat is much darker with a slice of evening sun across the hallway.

She heads for the kitchen whilst making noises at the cat.

She pours a glass of wine and takes a gulp before leaving the kitchen.

Alternative narrative

I have chosen Tree of Life (2001, dir Terrence Malick) to study as an 'alternative narrative'. It is not that there is no narrative but Malick has allowed this to become more of a sensory experience which takes the viewer on an emotional and spiritual journey.  Instead of the images supporting the story, they are designed to trigger memories and empathy to create experiential viewing.

Not everyone enjoys this approach. Even Sean Penn who plays the adult Jack O'Brien in the film was critical of Malick: "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly." (Interview in Le Figaro, August 2011)

This movie is quite autobiographical. Malick grew up in Waco, Texas where the film is set (although it was filmed in Smithville) where his father worked for an oil company but played the organ.  The director's brother Lawrence R Malick committed suicide when he was 19, the same age as the death of the brother : R.L in Tree of life. Malick's other brother died after a car crash in 2008.


Act 1 - idyllic scenes of a family home; the mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram to say her child has died; she tells her husband (Brad Pitt); there are scenes of grief and cold comfort from grandmother. Some flashbacks to show the boy played guitar. Adult Jack (Sean Penn) lights a votive candle and has a phonecall with his father; mumbles about his brother; scenes in a very modern glass building where Penn seems to be an unhappy architect; some dream sequences of desert and a murmuration.

Act 2 - creation sequence - a journey through time and space evolution. Nature and grace seem to be hand in hand here.

Act 3 - 1950s Texas where we see the family begin and grow up; the father is a disciplinarian, the mother is soft and forgiving; the boys do boy things and then get a bit wilder, get into trouble, go through growing pains; we see Jack as a troubled boy who doesn't get along too well with his Dad; things go wrong with Dad's job and he admits he had the wrong priorities and he was hard on the kids.  There is some resolution here.

Act 4 - Adult Jack is wandering around the desert; more impressionistic sequences; whole family on the beach; Jack kneels at his mother's feet. The final line is "I give you my son".


Malick called upon Douglas Trumbull, responsible for the special effects in 2001: Space Odyssey to create many of the visuals and he seems to have successfully captured Malick's ideas and vision.

Malick wanted the interior spaces to be unlighted, so three houses were used in the main story, depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. The sun is always visible shining through the windows.  Lots of use of light and dark 

There were lots of very high angles (eg when Mr O'Brien is walking along metal ladder corridors at his job to show scale) and low angles to show the POV of the kids revelling in nature.

Book of Job theme

The Book of Job is featured heavily as part of the theme of Tree of Life - to the detail of Jack O'Brien's initials as well as being the epigraph for the movie. 

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Job 38:4,7

We hear the mother whisper - presumably to her God - "What are we to you?"  and the father later rages that  he didn't acknowledge the glory.  "I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man."

Mrs O'Brien: "The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow." ["Grace" and "Nature" are whispered at the start of the film.]

As voiceover: "Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?"


The mother epitomises forgiveness, softness, light. She urges her boys: "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." She's playful - in one scene, she wakes them up by pressing ice cubes to their skin.  Several scenes are filmed with the camera following her from behind, as if she is leading the boys through life.


Some reviews describe him as being almost brutal but his character almost certainly reflects how a father would have behaved at that time.  This is where life and art becomes rather cliched - that father wants to be respected and successful, fails in his job through no fault of his own and life changes for the family.  At times he takes the discipline too far and the children are clearly scared of him but he is not abusive by the standards of the time.  He is also very playful with them - making shadow puppets and drawing on their faces.

Impressionistic sequences 

There is too much to cover here but some of the things that stood out for me were how well Malick recreated the sense of long, hot childhood summers. Surely every viewer could relate to something here?  Butterflies, frogs, Halloween, reading stories by torchlight, sprinklers in gardens, climbing trees, kicking cans, playing in long grass, staring at weird adults, falling in love with classmates, firecrackers, peer pressure, breaking windows, roughhousing with brothers. And they always seemed to be surrounded by dogs.  

Roger Ebert described this beautifully as "where life flows in and out through open windows".

The creation segments are gorgeous and epic. Much of the space imagery looks like rich baroque paintings. We see galaxies, nebulae, lava, waterfalls, cells, amoeba, DNA, jellyfish, seaweed, calm and beautiful dinosaurs, hammerhead sharks, giant manta rays, the eye of a foetus, the asteroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula.  The music and whispers and soundscapes make for a magical experience if the viewer is will to immerse themselves.

My response

This film definitely did not bore or irritate me as it seems to have done with many filmgoers.  I enjoyed the sensory experience throughout and I was definitely taken on emotional journey. I wonder if the sense of devastation of the brother dying would have been more powerful if we had seen the boys together more before we hear the news that he is dead?

Malick really succeeds in evoking the wonders of childhood and how hard it is to grow up. When you are young your family and friends are everything so small things seem unsurmountable and we really feel this through young Jack.

The impressionistic sequences elevate this from being a straight story of the mundane trials and tribulations of a family growing old together who suffer a bereavement.  This allows us as viewers to participate and explore our greater feelings about the world and why we are here and how we should behave. 

Many things puzzled me, of course ... the doorway in the desert that adult Jack (Sean Penn) walks through in his sharp suit; the lost souls wandering around on the beach; what sparked adult Jack's specific angst and sadness at that moment (an anniversary of RL's death?); what were memories, what were dreams and what was imagination (eg the tall creepy man in the attic)?; how did he finally achieve happiness and resolution? ...

There are so many things explored in this film which connect us humans and I found it to be a wonderful lyrical experience. Malick took a very simple premise - ordinary family relationships - and made something truly magical.  I can understand why people were frustrated by some of the apparently 'arty' bits but I am sure every single thing meant something to Malick and his teams and was included the final cut to help take us on the journey.

My attempts to summarise the 'narrative' in a diagram...